Juliette Murray was, like me, a kid at school who got 5 “A”s, which in the West of Scotland put a certain degree of pressure on one’s shoulders to study either medicine or law. I studied European Law, and became a teacher - that's what a European Law degree does to you. She studied medicine and is today a practicing doctor, but the education bug is firmly rooted in what she chose to do next.
Murray noticed that, particularly in her local area, fewer students were applying to study medicine than the population number would suggest should. Not only that, nationally the number of medical students dropping out after beginning their course of study is increasing. She wondered if we might we persuade a more representative cross section of the community to become doctors.
Teenagers in the Operating Theatre
She set about improving the opportunities for local youngsters, aged 14/5, at the time of their work experience choices. Existing work experience for those who want to gain an insight into the world of medical doctors is a sanitised course in an educational skills centre, where bored teenagers endlessly take each other’s blood pressure. They have more chance of a realistic insight by breaking their arm and turning up to Accident and Emergency. As any dad-to-be donning surgical greens knows, getting into an operating theatre is where a passion for surgery will be born or, in my case, definitely put to one side as a career option. So, the question became: how might we offer a more realistic experience of what being a doctor, surgeon or other medical profession feels like?
Culture of obstacles
Starting with her local hospital, Wishaw General in NHS Lanarkshire, she set about overcoming what she describes as a “culture of obstacles”. Two years later, though, and students are indeed undertaking real life surgery work experience, experiencing a live operation theatre and seeing the pressure of the job first hand.
A key hurdle was finding students to populate the programme. John McGilp, head teacher at local Coltness High School, became a partner in launching a 2015 pilot scheme, co-designing timing and content of various interventions throughout the year to find and prime students for the experience. Beginning with second and third year high school students, they had an early experience in June of the CAT test, required as part of every application to medical school, before other workshops on how to apply for the degree course and what kinds of subject requirements there might be.
120 pupils and their families came to an initial meeting of several high schools’ students, where they met with role models who raised expectations and aspirations. Above all, meeting other students from other schools in the area reinforced the idea that no-one was ‘alone’ in thinking of this ambitious path, that “people like me” did it, too.
The programme makes a point to involve other health care professionals, not just junior doctors, for those for whom it isn’t the right fit, or whose applications are not successful. And, in the meantime, more junior doctors are offering to participate, enthusiastic to help and increasing in number as word gets around.
If it's that good, why doesn't it happen everywhere?
This is a nascent and growing example of what happens when people, who no doubt have many other things going on in their busy lives, make a decision to spend that bit more effort on a mission they feel is worth while. Thankfully for Murray, she found a willing school partner early on, who put in an equal extra effort to make it work. But for ideas like this to 'scale', it requires more than a pack, website or even funding - there was next-to-no additional funding to make this possible in the first place, and not even a purchase code to buy coffee and tea for school kids.
There was just passion and perseverance to do what felt right.
Now, the team are adding to their passion with data showing how it works.
The key is whether other Head Teachers and their leadership teams feel passionate about closing the achievement gap in this way, raising aspiration of what might be possible, to set up and run a similar programme in their own area.